Robert Gehrke: This proposed Utah law may give dating apps the tools they need to warn against catfishing

Robert Gehrke

Last year, a Kaysville woman went to the FBI alleging a man she had met through an online dating app claimed to be an FBI security expert and had asked her to order him cellphones he needed for his job.

She had let him order the phones through her account and, before she knew it, he allegedly had ordered between $200,000 and $500,000 in phones that he didn’t pay for, having them shipped outside the country, according to KSL.

It’s just one example of a problem not uncommon on online dating apps, so-called “catfishing,” where someone pretends to be someone he or she is not in order to take advantage of an unsuspecting individual.

It’s nothing new. It has been prevalent enough that it has been the focus of books and television shows.

Now, one of the leading online dating platforms, Match Group — which runs OkCupid, PlentyOfFish, Tinder and, of course, Match.com — is advocating for a new law in Utah requiring dating apps that ban a user for catfishing to notify anyone with whom the fake account holder has interacted with through the app.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, is exploring how a bill could be crafted and a discussion of the issue is scheduled for the Legislature’s law enforcement interim committee next week.

“I do have concerns about people misrepresenting themselves on the internet and preying on vulnerable individuals. Right now I want to see what we can and can’t do and have the conversations,” she said. “I don’t know exactly where this will be able to go.”

A notification law similar to the one that Match wants recently took effect in Vermont.

A Match spokesperson said the company uses technology and staff to monitor for suspicious activity and identify stolen credit cards and advises customers never to send money to people they meet, but they want to be able to do more.

“Match supports the efforts of Utah legislators to enact strong new protections against online fraud and catfishing that impacts Utah users,” the company spokesperson said. “Utah is leading in this area and we are pleased to be part of this effort.”

Examples of catfishing from across the country show the practice goes way beyond simply using a photo 20 pounds lighter or 10 years younger than they actually are.

Last month, The New York Times told the story of Renee Holland, a 56-year-old Delaware woman who struck up an online romance with a supposed soldier, to whom she had sent care packages, thousands of dollars in gift cards, and $5,000 for plane tickets for his return trip home.

Holland, who was married, was left waiting, draped in a flag at the Philadelphia airport, and on the way home bought sleeping pills and vodka and tried to take her own life.

And you might remember the case of Manti Te’o, a Notre Dame football star whose online girlfriend supposedly died of cancer. It got national attention, people around the country donated to a charity in her name, and she never existed.

Some cases are even darker.

In Iowa last year, the Supreme Court upheld the sexual assault conviction of a man who had pretended to be someone else online and convinced a woman to wear a blindfold and have sex with him. The court ruled that consenting to sex with one individual under a false pretense does not equate to consent with another.

Of course sexual assault is already a crime. So is fraud, whether it’s coercing someone to send care packages or order cellphones, and prosecutors have the ability to charge those cases already.

What the proposed Utah law seeks to do is reduce the ability of serial scammers to violate customers’ trust again and again — because if someone is running a scam on one person, chances are they’re running it on many others, too. It would alert potential victims that they may have already been duped, empower some of those victimized by a catfisher to go to authorities, and reminds users to be careful with what they share online.

Couldn’t companies like Match do this on their own? Well, yeah, probably. Platforms do reserve the right to boot users who don’t abide by the terms of service — which of course we all know because we have read them.

Notifying users that someone was using a fake profile, however, is a little more problematic and, frankly, part of the reason the companies like the proposed legislation is it protects them legally if a banned user claims their reputation was damaged by the notifications.

And it makes sense to explore the issue. With online dating platforms becoming more ubiquitous — an estimated 40 million Americans are using them — they will only become even more fertile territory for fraud.

Requiring dating companies and potentially other social media apps to notify users of catfishing scams is a simple measure that would help ensure that people already putting themselves in a vulnerable position don’t go, as the old song went, looking for love in all the wrong places.